THE FUTURE OF HUMANISM

by Babu Gogineni


Summary: Humanism (in my view) tends to be a smug and uncritical movement. This was not always so. However, the following address is unusually international-minded and critical, so perhaps this will change—Rae West.
      The following keynote address was delivered in London on 21 September 1997. The speaker is 29 years old; he lived in Hyderabad in India until moving to London in February 1997 to work for IHEU, the International Humanist and Ethical Union, as its Executive Director. He taught French for over ten years at the Alliance Française of Hyderabad, held administrative positions there, and launched its Cultural Wing as well as a Scientific Resource Centre. His degree is a B.Sc. in Microbiology, Botany etc. and he holds a postgraduate diploma in International Trade. He was General Secretary of the Rationalist Association of India.
     Uploaded onto Internet with permission of Mr Gogineni.
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I

Humanist colleagues:

Our humanism is secular, and we derive our ancient inspiration from the freethinking intellectual and rationalist traditions of India, China, Greece and Rome – a tradition whose spirit found strong and renewed expression in the Age of Reason and Enlightenment. However, while mentioning our roots, we may want to note that we do not have unqualified admiration for those who preceded us on humanity's quest for freedom. Let us consider as an example the American Declaration of Independence: a fine humanist achievement of the age it was written in. But today when we look back, we see that however loudly the American Declaration of Independence might have proclaimed the self evident truth that all men were created equal, or may have said that they were endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the authors of the document did not believe in it themselves: these rights were not extended to their brothers of African origin. We have further quarrels with the text: men and women are not created equal; in fact, you may want to join in, and point out that they were not created at all.

We are not assembled here to denigrate humanity's achievements on its way to the present, but to note that we have come a long way since, and to realise that the journey is far from complete – there are more milestones ahead of us!

In a general sense, humanism for us is a cultural achievement of mankind, and its most sophisticated, advanced and articulate expression is in our time. Despite our minor quibbles about whether humanism should be capitalised as in the names of religions, whether it should be summarised into a minimum statement with which humanists agree world-wide, or whether it should be described as a life stance or not, there is a broad consensus today as to what humanism means to all of us assembled here: that it is a philosophy of life which asserts the centrality of the human being.

For us, humanism is concerned with achieving responsible freedom and happiness in this world. We believe that the purpose of life is that which each of us gives it, and recognise the right of each of us to do so. We understand that moral values are derived from human experience; we refuse to substitute custom for conscience, advocate unconditional freedom of thought and dissent, and work for the translation of these convictions into civilised law which guarantees everyone's right to be able to do so.

We are interested in truth, and in knowing the ultimate nature of reality. But we recognise that 'truth is but the content of knowledge', and that it is not the exclusivity of its possession, but its pursuit which is fundamental to human progress. We look upon science and its self-correcting approach as the means of getting closer to truth, and therefore insist that any account of nature must pass the tests of scientific evidence.

We are sceptics, not cynics – and we believe that our lot can be bettered by our own efforts. We are advocates of the use of reason and reasonableness in any approach to solving human problems.

As humanists we promote the creation of a planetary society, and propose humanism and humanist values as its basis. We offer the conception of our common humanity, the realisation of humanity's shared destiny, the moral obligations that stem from this understanding, and the visions and prospects of joint progress as the solvent of contemporary human divisions and conflicts.

II

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) which moved its headquarters to London in February '97, was founded in 1952 in Amsterdam, to federate humanist groups around the world, and to promote internationally this concept of humanism.

One of the important activities of IHEU is focusing global humanist attention on specific issues through organising International Humanist Congresses. It was at one such IHEU World Humanist Congress in 1974 (Amsterdam) that the Congress participants pledged general support to Humanist Manifesto II, which starts with the sentence: "the next century can be and should be the humanistic century."

Twenty-five years later, as we stand at the edge of this perilous century, what we see is a world that is undergoing an uneven moulting; a world where the confederacy of authoritarian values, irrationalism and racial prejudice is gaining ground. A world where the active collusion of oppressive economies, third world kleptocracies and first world military-business interests is causing increasing alienation among all its peoples. A world where the chilling world-wide alliance of religion with tribal and cultural nationalism is successfully sponsoring our regress into humanity's social memory of intolerance and terror.

Much that humanism advocates – or has already achieved – is once again under attack.

So what can humanism and organised humanists do in this situation? Will humanism turn its other cheek, or devise ways of tackling the problem head on? Will the next century be ours? Or, let us ask the question differently: Will humanism have a future?

III

Indeed, The Future of Humanism will be what we make it to be, and I believe that on a global scale humanists have much to do to ensure its future. It takes time to reconcile the 'pessimism of thought to the optimism of will', but may be there will some time be a humanist century. But for us to be effective – and to be more relevant –, we need to stop marginalising ourselves, we ought to get back into the mainstream of human activity, and we should try to put back the adventure that there once was in humanism – when humanists contributed to creating society with the human being as its archetype.

Humanists need to reach out further, to help expand the frontiers of human freedoms, and to increase the possibilities of human achievements by linking our liberating attitudes to contemporary concerns. While it is true that our inspiration comes from the free-thinking, rationalist and secular traditions, by definition, the domain and focus of humanism is the human being, and we need not limit our critical attention to the religious world view.

However, in practice, the vast majority of our valuable efforts are directed against Religion alone, and not against the general authoritarian and unjust attitudes of which religion partakes – attitudes that are present in human society in abundant measure. I believe that the greatest challenge before organised humanists today is whether they can embrace larger fields of human activity where they will seek to apply humanism's universal principles, and with the aid of the disinfecting power of reason, formulate appropriate responses and solutions to today's crises. The challenge for us humanists is to get back in touch with reality, and to prove that we are part of an ongoing humanist tradition, rather than a fossilised body of thought.

Western Europe where vanquished religion testifies to humanist success is the ideal setting where humanists can take the lead in this effort and help make humanism more relevant to humanity. Undoubtedly, even in this part of the world, some battles still need to be fought and won, but we need not be pessimistic about the final outcome of the struggle against religion.

At the heart of this victory lie adoption of the scientific temper and the useful application of technology, accompanied by the increasing secularisation of society – all of which are humanist contributions. One must perhaps clarify here that by science and technology the appreciative reference is to the creative use of science for human welfare – not its subversive use in creating weapons of mass destruction, and their sale to foolish and poor countries; by secularisation, we mean not the simple separation of religion and state which ironically is far from achieved in Western Europe, but rather the complex, yet steady, weaning away of society from religion and the religious mode of thinking.

Yet, from outside the Western world, one would be amazed to see how closely these achievements of humanism: democracies, free opportunity, secular societies and modern science are unambiguously linked with their own domestic misery by non-westerners. The West, which is synonymous with the conceptions of democracy, science and secularism – and hence synonymous with what humanism stands for – is also linked with the world order that has been prevailing for some time now on the planet.

IV

To call it a world order is rather misleading: today humanity lives in fragmented societies, constantly trying to reconcile its loyalties divided among ideologies, religions, nationalities and even football clubs. Apart from these, there are also cruel and depressing economic and political realities in the world – realities that divide us more than they unite.

One of the most important such reality is curiously 'linked to latitude': the world is divided into the industrialised North (mostly Western nations, but also Japan, Australia and South Africa), and the raw material producing, technology-deficient South (mostly the third world countries of Asia, Africa and South America; the ex-communist bloc countries which were formerly called the second world are also today reduced to the third world plight, but are not officially defined as the South).

The North has about one-fifth the world's population, but accounts for nearly four-fifths of its income: of the 23 trillion US Dollar global-GDP in 1993, the share of the Northern countries was over 18 trillion dollars, compared to the barely 5 trillion dollars for developing countries. The South accounts for about 70% of the world's people, most of them poor, deprived and oppressed. To gauge the inequalities of our world, it is enough to know that the bottom 20% of the world's population contributes to only 1.4% of the global GNP, a mere 1% share of World trade and receives a miserable 0.2% share of global commercial lending.

This gap and disparity between the North and the South has only been progressively growing. If one compares the figures for 1960 and 1993, the gap in per capita income between the North and the South has tripled, from 5700 US$ in 1960 to 15400 US$ in 1993. It is interesting to know that the assets of the world's 358 billionaires – most of these live in the North – exceed the combined annual incomes of countries with 45% of the world's people.

The lack of proportionate distribution of wealth naturally results in unequal enjoyment of world resources: though at present they produce twice as much minerals as developing countries, countries in the North consume 16 times as much, with the result that about 70% of the world exports of fuel and non-fuel minerals go to the North. For example, annually an American uses the energy equivalent of 1053 Nepalese!

The post so-called-Second-World-War period led at one level to a vastly improved economic relationship between the North and the earlier colonised South, but in essence the relation remains the same. The South still survives on its exports of primary raw material and the industrially advanced North processes it, piously puts it in bio-degradable packaging, and markets it. The developing countries have neither the incentive nor the opportunity – either because of lack of technology or tariff barriers – to participate in the processing and marketing of their produce.

Very often it is felt that the First world (The North) makes up for this inequity by giving aid to the third world countries. Attitudes to domestic poverty being what they are in the developed countries, it seems also natural to their citizens that some of their own national wealth be sent to the poorer peoples: a quarter of the world's five billion and above live in absolute poverty. But how many are aware that the 50-odd Billion US$ that the poor nations receive as aid is a mere ninth of the 500 Billion US$-worth of trade opportunities that they are denied because of barriers to the movement of goods and people? In addition, how many citizens in the Western countries would approve of the pattern of aid distribution if they knew that twice as much aid per capita is given to high military spenders in the third world than to moderate spenders. (And where do these countries purchase their weapons from? And whose industries and jobs are maintained by this seeming generosity?) The sad fact is that only a quarter of Northern aid is earmarked for the ten countries which contain three fourths of the world's absolute poor.

But if we are looking at the aid gift horse in the mouth, is there any other way in which the South can develop? The late Pakistani Physicist-Nobel laureate, Dr. Abdus Salaam, had the answer; an answer that even the North-South Report of Willy Brandt did not deem worthy of consideration. Dr. Salaam wrote, ".. in the final analysis, creation, mastery and utilisation of modern science and technology is basically what distinguishes the South from the North. On Science and Technology depend the standards of living of a Nation".

Historically, all parts of the world have played important roles in the acquisition – and sharing – of knowledge. However, at this present stage of human development, it is the West that is the leader in plumbing the depths of the universe – and the West refuses to effect any significant transfer of technology on a non-commercial basis. As knowledge is held in chains, the majority of humanity is deprived of the fruits of human achievements. This attitude remained unshaken even when at one point the very question of humanity's survival was being discussed. Until not very long ago, the Western nations retained the right to manufacture and export ozone-layer-endangering CFCs, even while maintaining that third world countries could not manufacture them! Further, until the London Agreement of 1989, the West which manufactured 88% of the CFCs in the world did not transfer CFC-replacement technologies on a non-commercial basis! Is it perhaps too much to expect the rich countries to look beyond their economic noses even if the environment is at stake.

The environment is another issue which deserves our critical attention, though not for this occasion. It brings up fundamental questions of man's deteriorating relation with nature. Touching this subject as we do in passing, let us recall what the Spanish Prime Minister Filipe Gonzalez pointed out, referring to the Explorers of the 14th and the 15th centuries "Five hundred years ago man discovered the Earth's dimensions, and in Rio he has discovered its limits."

One can continue looking at other things which are rotten in the state of the world – specially in the third world where Mobutus, Kabilas and Marcos abound; one can point out that the South is deficient not just in technology, but also in scientific temper, we could despair at the failing democracies in the South and the lack of visionary leadership, at the commissions and omissions of some national and other notional governments, be baffled at the futile idolatry of geography which leads to countless conflicts carried on by Western arms, pity the plight of women and the state of the world's children – but let me bring you back to the important question for today: in this context, can we make humanism a coherent actor in national and international affairs? Can we offer humanist perspectives to the problems that haunt us, and show the world that adopting the humanist philosophy will lead to a better world?

V

I believe that there is indeed a humanist perspective to offer, but that will be a task for the humanist intellectual, not the organisation. By the humanist intellectual, we refer here not to the academic employee, but the vertical individual of Sib Narayan Ray, the intellectual that Edward Said says should be able to 'speak truth to power', act as a gadfly, raise embarrassing questions to confront orthodoxy and dogma. An intellectual who, by his universal orientation, bound neither by national boundaries nor by ethnic considerations, would work for changing attitudes in the world. It is such intellectuals and leaders of men, who will help re-establish the spirit of human solidarity that today is obscured in the dust raised by ideological and religious differences, arms trade and the mad consumerist scramble.

So how would a humanist who would embrace no category smaller than humanity react to the present situation?

This humanist would have to start by rejecting the economic and political definition of the human being that is being imposed on all of us. Advocating that people from the second and the third worlds cannot be looked upon as mere emerging markets, this humanist would point out that we are in quest of a people-oriented global development; not one measured in GNP and per capita income alone – for us, not just the rate, but the quality of growth is important. We would then have to agree with him that we are more concerned about well-being of all the people, rather than with the traditional means of accounting wealth. Health and education and the investment in social services is very important to us. That for us, rather than being placed at the receiving end of charity, people from poor societies should be enabled to act out their economic betterment and emancipation by being given their rightful opportunities. That while we welcome the fact that trade around the world is becoming free, we insist that it should also become fair. That globalisation must not stop with the economy, but that what interests us is the globalisation of the mind.

Both in the North and the South, we live in societies where consent is manufactured, where both economic and political power is concentrated in a few hands: this is a threat to the Humanist enterprise. As pointed out by Justice Tarkunde, recipient of the IHEU International Humanist Award, the humanist attitude provides the sub-soil on which any democracy can flourish. In fact, even the roots of the ecological crisis today lie in the historical taking away of the right of the local community to participate in environmental decision making. We must therefore favour the creation of local communities equipped with rights and obligations.

We stand for democratisation of social opportunity, but also for democratisation of technology. And by technology we mean appropriate technology, involving cheaper sources of energy, simpler processes, and most suited to the people who handle it. To enable this to happen, the countries of the North need to liberalise the transfer of essential technology, freeing it from the shackles of unreasonable intellectual property regimes. In the process we want modernisation of the world, not its westernisation.

By coming to the aid of the deprived and the exploited, Humanists of our kind will come into contact with the pro-democracy, environmental and emancipation struggles and be able to influence them with more secular values. It is only then that we can answer spurious arguments about regional or religious concepts of cultural values – be they Asian, African, Christian, Islamic or Hindu. The humanist must first demonstrate that our values in theory as well as translated into practice are a cultural accomplishment of mankind. In this way, our influence will far outnumber the membership of our groups.

It is in this enlarging of the concerns of humanism that will lie the future appeal of humanism, and therefore it is this that shall hold the key to the future of our hopes, and the answer to the problem of The Future of Humanism.


Babu R R Gogineni
Executive Director, International Humanist and Ethical Union
47, Theobald's Road
London WC1X 8SP


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